This might seem an odd phrase to use today, in a modern kitchen, with no real fire and ash and soot, but when we consider its origins, it becomes obvious how it arose.
In a medieval kitchen, pots and kettles would have been made from cast iron, so that they would withstand the heat of a real fire and last a long time. Both pots and kettles would have been heated over a fire, where several factors would have contributed to making them black. Firstly, there is the most obvious accumulation of soot, but even more simply than that, cast iron would have gone black, with cooking oil, smoke, general wear and tear. It would have been extremely difficult to get rid of the discolouring completely, however much the pots and kettles were scrubbed, and black they tended to remain. Obviously, both pot and kettle were in a similar condition, so it would have been sheer hypocrisy for one to accuse the other of being black!
Pots and kettles were by no means the only way to express this idea. In 1606, Shakespeare wrote Troilus and Cressida and gave Ulysses the line:
“The raven chides blackness.” (Act II Scene III).
Here again, the idea is of colour, of black, being the issue. As we shall see, this was not always the case in other languages.
We first find a reference to kettles in this context in a translation into English by Thomas Shelton of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, from 1620:
“You are like what is said that the frying-pan said to the kettle, ‘Avant, black-browes’.”
This suggests that the origin of the phrase is Spanish, and that it was adopted in English, perhaps coming to replace the earlier native phrase used by Shakespeare.
The first reference to the phrase in its current form came some 73 years later. It can be found in William Penn’s Some Fruits of Solitude, from 1693:
“For a Covetous Man to inveigh against Prodigality… is for the Pot to call the Kettle black.”
It has certainly proved a popular phrase, having stood the test of time and still in use today. Interestingly, an extremely similar expression is used in Lithuanian: juokiasi puodas, kad katilas juodas, which means “the pot laughs at the cauldron being black”. Not only that, but the Finnish idiom is also along the same lines; pata kattilaa soimaa, which means “the cauldron blames the saucepan”. Different language families notwithstanding, the image of pans, kettles, pots, cauldrons and similar utensils is indeed a strong one.
Also using pots is the Romanian phrase râde ciob de oală spartă, translating as “the shard laughs at the pot it fell from”. While one phrase used in Welsh is very much like the English one: y sosban yn galw’r tegell yn ddu – the saucepan calls the kettle black, there are also other options. My personal favourite is: “tinddu”, medd y frân wrth yr wylan, or “You are black! -said the crow to the seagull”. This one reminds me of the phrase quoted above from Shakespeare. But you can also use pentan yn gweiddi parddu, which means “the hob is shouting out soot”, a similar concept to the pots and kettles.
In modern Spanish, there are a few phrases. We’ll start with the somewhat macabre el muerto se ríe del degollado, meaning “the dead laughs at the one whose throat was slit”, and also el roto se ríe del descosido, which translates as “the broken laughs at the unstitched”. Mockery, it seems, is a popular theme in this type of idiom.
In French, a popular way to express this concept is l’hôpital qui se moque de la charité, which means “the hospital that makes fun of charity”.
On we go to German, where we find der muss sich an der eigene Nase fassen, which literally means “he must grasp his own nose”.
Another Celtic language, this time Manx Gaelic, where the expression might bring a chuckle: yn oghe gyllagh thoyn losht da’n aiee, which means “the oven calling the kiln burnt-arse”! No mincing words for Manx!
I rather like the expression in Greek: ο γάιδαρος είπε τον πετεινό κεφάλα (o gaidaros eipe ton peteino kefala), which translates as “the donkey called the rooster big-headed”.
Another language not using the pots and pans image is Bulgarian, with Присмял се хърбел на щърбел (Prismial se harbel na shtarbel), which translates as “the extremely skinny laughed at the extremely crooked” – they both have their problems, it seems to be saying.
Now to a language I haven’t posted before. In Hindi, you would say उल्टा चोर कोतवाल को डांटे, (Ulta chor kotwal ko dante), which means “the guilty thief scolding the innocent Police officer”. I love this one!
Thankyou to everyone who sent me expressions